Effective Altruism in the Sixth Extinction

 /  Nov. 18, 2018, 4:33 p.m.



The human race is the most effective invasive species of all time. Even prior to the agricultural revolution, Homo sapiens spread across the globe and left an indelible mark on their new ecosystems. Australia, Madagascar, and the Americas all saw massive extinction after humans settled—and humans appear to be the only additive factor in those extinctions. The carnage continued once humans realized they could domesticate animals and nomadic peoples began clearing land to farm. Unsurprisingly, the industrial revolution wreaked even more havoc on nature. Pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more clinical methods of mass slaughter and run-of-the mill pollution tampering with the biosphere’s equilibrium has come with tremendous cost to animal life. This year, the background extinction rate (the number of natural extinctions that occur every year) is anywhere from one thousand to ten thousand times higher than it would be with no human intervention.

Such a high number is cause for alarm. Even if one ignores ethical arguments around animal suffering or fails to care if future generations benefit from Earth’s natural beauty, mass extinction can have ripple effects on the human food supply. Bugs that fertilize soil risk extinction if the animals in their vicinity perish and fewer animals can naturally spread the seeds of nutritious crops. Moreover, moonshot medical research initiatives often depend on biodiversity. If the Amazon becomes as plain as any other forest, we may lose cures for diseases we have not even seen yet. Mass animal death coupled with rising global temperatures will impact microbiomes in potentially dangerous ways.

We do not necessarily know what exactly mass extinction means, but we can be certain it will have negative consequences. With such dire stakes, one would expect conservation groups to direct their efforts as efficiently as possible. Conservationists should co-opt some principles of effective altruism and employ conservation triage to better safeguard against the impending catastrophe.

What is Effective Altruism?

"Effective altruism" (EA) is simple: every dollar carries an opportunity cost, so giving ought to maximize the utility of each donated dollar by minimizing that opportunity cost, meaning we should rigorously evaluate charities. Philosophers like Peter Singer and William MacAskill compellingly argue that, in giving, we should seek to minimize opportunity costs so as to do the most good. "When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective," writes MacAskill in his book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.

EA, however, has its detractors. Tyler Cowen, blogger at Marginal Revolution and founder of George Mason University's libertarian Mercatus Institute, questions our ability to quantify the long-run marginal utility of giving. Still, he concludes overall that applying some economic evaluation of the utility per dollar of contribution is underrated. The more potent critique from the center-right against effective altruism weighs virtue and value ethics over MacAskill and Singer's Benthamian utilitarianism. Professor Jeff McMahon of Oxford, for instance, outlines how utilitarianism demands prudence from givers and strips them of their agency in deciding what constitutes "good" in the world.

On the left, charitable giving has been called into question by those like Nobel laureate Angus Deaton. In his book The Great Escape, Deaton argues that charities (even effective ones) prop up corrupt regimes. While Deaton himself is unclear on "effective altruism" specifically, his claim that institutional strength is ancillary to economic development is amplified by Amia Srivasasan of Oxford, who extends that "there is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That [effective altruists speak] in the proprietary language of the illness—global inequality—whose symptoms [they propose] to mop up is an irony on which [they do not] comment." In essence, the critique of effective altruism on the left is more one of neoliberal capitalist charity. Capitalism, to the left, causes the ailments effective altruism is supposed to cure.

Complacency in EA

The criticisms of effective altruism from both sides of the political spectrum help to explain the political calculus of conservation groups. They have become complacent with current revenue streams and initiatives, which has dangerous implications for the fight to protect species in our current extinction crisis. These groups recognize that assessing which species are dying can be difficult. Species can seem to go extinct then reappear within a few decades. Population quantification sounds easy in theory, but in practice a variety of methods give shaky results, with little consensus on which data is best. Even in Amazonian enclosures sectioned off specifically for research, documenting populations of at-risk mammals, reptiles and birds is a Herculean task. Tracking bug and amphibian populations? Sisyphean.

To be sure, environmental reviews and governmental inquiries do provide good data on macro-trends in specie deaths and population variance. Governments can quantify the impact of their policies in different ecosystems. But nonprofits cannot do the same, aside from systematic reviews. One, effective policies may actually stymie dollars coming to conservation groups. The key marketing strategy of most conservation groups is alarmism. If populations rebound, people may see little reason to give. Another issue is that Western organizations typically enter ecosystems without clear jurisdiction or a long-term plan. Failing to remain in the same area for a long time creates a steeper learning curve, which, in the case of a conservation push in the Southwest of Cameroon, meant that organizations butted heads with indigenous groups and failed to do their due diligence in analyzing resource use and conflict in the region.

Moreover, small donors and those interested in virtue signaling over effectuating real change are impeding utilitarianism. Consequently, revenue streams for wildlife preservation groups often depend on initiatives that prioritize protection of "cute" animals over those that are most threatened. The separation is rooted in carnism, or the violent ideology of animal subjugation humans engage in, which depends on classifying animals as "worthy" or "unworthy." The majority of conservation dollars go where these donors want them to go. Eighty mammalian species wind up hogging the lion's share (no pun intended) of funds, and a majority of NGOs spend their money within 100 kilometers of where those funds were raised. While protecting the flagship (or "celebrity") species of nonprofits may be virtuous, it is as wasteful as it is worrisome.

A lack of funding is also constraining conservation groups. While the World Wildlife Foundation had its best fundraising year on record in 2017, conservation groups still are chronically underfunded, requiring $10 billion per year in fundraising dollars to address even their short term goals. Conservation groups spend a lot of money lobbying for governmental change. Seventy-six environmental groups lobbied Congress with around $9 million in 2017, which helps satisfy the left's concern that aid and charity cover up the misdeeds of capitalism. Systemic change scores low from an effective altruism perspective (since it has been ineffective in the past) but it may be the only panacea in the long term. Still, without proper quantification, the opportunity costs are not transparent. Is $9 million for a fraction of a chance at policy intervention more or less valuable than $9 million on reforestation efforts?

Managing the Fallout

The main problem facing conservation groups is scarcity. Information scarcity causes the benign motives of conservation groups to diverge from their actual goals. Fundraising scarcity makes overprovision for flagship species more profitable at the expense of the environment. The former can be solved by more introspection: conservation groups should research the effects of their programs and experiment to see which solutions really work. The latter, though, cannot be solved easily. Low revenue should impel conservation groups to triage their fundraising dollars to the ecosystems and species that most effectively address the species most in need. Looming extinctions will dramatically upset the natural world, but applying effective altruism to conservation properly may help manage the fallout.

First, NGOs should invest more in research about the effectiveness of their programs. Without good data, the value derived from conservation efforts is inconclusive. Juggernauts in the conservation space ought to begin pilot programs targeting individual goals to see what works. To evaluate which goals are worth pursuing, cost-benefit analyses and opportunity costs must be fully fleshed out. Some are ahead of the curve already. The World Wildlife Foundation puts out peer-reviewed white papers that analyze policy changes, which is a good start. Groups like The Audobon Society, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and The National Coalition for Marine Conservation that are failing to review themselves internally should do so. Even better would be a watchdog like GiveWell to track marginally useful initiatives and spotlight them (GiveWell and other watch dogs typically fall into an anthropocentric view of giving, so they ignore many conservation NGOs).

Second, effective altruists should prioritize which ecosystems and species need their dollars the most. Rather than focusing efforts specifically on preserving the mammals that flagship species, conservation dollars should go to the most vulnerable ecosystems. Showing cute images of pandas and polar bears to raise money is smart business: it captures interest and increases revenue. But there should be more coordination into the jurisdictional importance of ecosystems for maintaining biodiversity and fighting against climate change. Adorable pandas might not be where conservation dollars are best spent.

Weaning off flagship species is tied to the idea of environmental triage, or deciding which lives to save and how to save them. Even if carbon emissions magically vanished tomorrow, the Earth would still reel from the past two centuries of carbon dioxide output. The pain of today pales in comparison to the hangover of tomorrow. The conservation community needs to decide on which species are most worth saving, potentially by measuring degrees of value added to ecosystems or our food supply. If they do not, then those who are most keen on managing our extinction crisis will squander their potential to make a real impact.

Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily reflective of The Gate.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Rob and can be found here.

Alex Weissman


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